Oral Cultures and Us

On their respective blogs, April DeConick, Mark Goodacre, and Loren Rosson are having a discussion of orality, “secondary orality,” oral and literate cultures, and how our era of chaotic electronic communication might compare to the world that produced the New Testament (the area of study of the aforementioned scholar/bloggers). It’s pretty interesting stuff, so I won’t let my complete ignorance of the subject keep me from making a few random semi-related comments. Please do bear in mind that my only claim to expertise here is that I, you know, read and talk, so I’m pretty sure I’m way out in left field here. Oh, and I think my most interesting point as the last one, so you might just skip to that.

It’s not entirely clear to me that Professors DeConick and Goodacre and Rosson don’t actually more or less agree—Goodacre says so, respecting DeConick’s first post—and that the apparent disagreement is really over terminology and nuance and emphasis. Is that typical of oral or literate cultures? 🙂 . Insofar as I understand the issues here, I’m entirely with April DeConick (always a safe bet, as far as I can tell).

Rossen, citing this, argues “that our hypertext/internet subculture shares remarkable similarities with oral biblical culture.” I don’t buy it. The analogy is certainly interesting, but I don’t think it’s more than, well, an interesting analogy. It would be at the very least misleading to draw conclusions about the culture that produced the New Testament. Maybe when I have more time and energy I’ll respond to all the points there in detail, but for now I’ll just mention two very obvious things:

  1. Our pseudo-oral electronic communication shares one crucial feature with good old books, and not with truly oral culture—you can always look up sources. You can click on those links above and see what I garbled in this post. You should, actually, if you have the slightest interest. Then you can go to a library and read the references they cite. I should do that myself.
  2. As April DeConick comes close to pointing out, people in oral cultures had skills we don’t—our memories suck. We have no need to remember very much; we can look up anything we need, and just haven’t needed to practice memorizing things. The internet has made looking stuff up even easier, come to think of it, moving us still further away from truly oral cultures.

This does have me thinking about “oral transmission” and what it means for various ancient texts. How do the gospels compare in that respect to the Pentateuch, or to the Iliad and the Odyssey?

Homer seems a very different case from the Bible here—the Greek epics were (apparently) pretty direct transcriptions of oral versions of the story. Hence all the mnemonic devices and stock phrases: “strong-greaved Achaeans,” “bright Achilles,” “gray-eyed Athene,” “wine-dark sea.”

The gospels and the Old Testament, at least the part of the OT I find most interesting—the J sections of the Pentateuch and the story of David—also strike me as fundamentally different in origin. The gospels were apparently written down in part to preserve circulating oral tradition, and although (unlike the Homeric epics) they were certainly not mere transcriptions, their authors presumably thought of themselves much more as reporters than as poets or novelists. On the other hand, I tend to think that the Yahwist and the “Court Historian of David,”—who may have been the same personwere essentially novelists. They used oral (and maybe written, for all we know) tradition as source material, but just as modern fabulists and historical novelists do they turned them into new, creative works. I think the Court History of David (including one of its prequels in I Samuel) is in fact best characterized as the first historical novel. Or at least the first one that survives.

Back to the modern world. I think the only example of an actual oral culture that we modern Americans are exposed to is that of elementary-school children. All of you out there sang “Jingle Bells, Batman Smells,” “Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, I bit my teacher’s toe,” and “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the burning of the school,” didn’t you? In the days before Bart Simpson those spread (mostly) orally, all over the country, with all the attendant versions and variations that you’d expect. “I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes“—maybe New Testament scholars should consider visiting some elementary schools…


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